Getting Back to Basics—What Is Culinary Literacy and Why Does It Matter?
By Nara Sandberg, Partnerships Associate, The Monday Campaigns
These days, with the prevalence and popularity of cooking shows on TV, you’d think we’d all be experts on cooking and preparing meals. This is far from true, and while it’s not necessary for kids and parents to be expert chefs, basic culinary literacy can be extremely beneficial to families. If you follow ChopChop Family, as we at Kids Cook Monday do, you know the positive impact cooking can have on children and families.
What is culinary literacy? Dr. Peggy Policastro, RDN, is the Director of Behavioral Nutrition in the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health at Rutgers University and the Director of Nutrition for Rutgers Dining Services. Policastro says, “Culinary literacy means understanding the basics— how to prepare a simple meal, knowing the difference between baking and broiling, knowing how to use a knife, and understanding what to look for when shopping for fruits and vegetables.”
Policastro is an advocate for empowering kids and families with the tools they need to live healthier lives and is currently leading the culinary literacy arm of the New Jersey Healthy Kids Initiative (NJHKI), a joint collaboration between the New Jersey Institute for Food, Nutrition, and Health (IFNH) and the Child Health Institute of New Jersey (CHINJ) with funding by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The goal of NJHKI is to make New Jersey kids the healthiest in the nation, serving as a model to be replicated across the country.
Research shows that kids who are involved in preparing meals will be more likely to try the healthy foods they prepare, be less likely to be obese, and will have increased self-esteem—feeling empowered to contribute to their family.
Preparing home-cooked meals and bringing kids into the kitchen may seem daunting, but it doesn’t need to be. Dr. Policastro offers some tips for families:
You don’t need to be a chef! Expensive equipment and complicated recipes are not necessary to cook a delicious meal.
Start with the basics. If you invest in one item, get a good knife. There are great, inexpensive child-appropriate knives on the market as well. Other equipment can be simple and inexpensive. Start simple with one dish you can master: something with few ingredients that doesn’t require any fancy equipment to prepare.
Everyone at every level can help. Children, even as young as preschool-age, can be involved in cooking. There is always something that everyone in the family can contribute to— tearing lettuce, adding a pinch of herbs or spices, or mixing.
Start just one day a week. If getting everyone to cook and eat together seems challenging, start with just one day a week. Monday is a great day to do this. Why Monday? Because evidence shows that Monday is the day people are receptive to health messages and are motivated to get on a healthier track. Kids Cook Monday helps make it easier for families to dine together on Mondays with the free Family Dinner Date Newsletter. It provides a recipe with an ingredient list, including steps broken down for kids, step for parents, and steps for what families can do together. It’s delivered each Friday to give parents plenty of time to pick up the necessary ingredients and get families excited about their upcoming cooking get-togethers.
Prepare the same dish for everyone. Children over the age of two can eat the same meals as adults, just in smaller portions. There is no need for a separate kids’ menu. Prepare dishes that meet in the middle—like these Rainbow Potato Pancakes or Caprese Pasta.
If parents eat well, kids will too. Keep introducing healthy foods and modeling eating fruits and vegetables and eventually, your kids will catch on. Children’s biggest influences are their parents. Even the pickiest eaters will eventually try fruits and vegetables after seeing a parent eat them countless times.